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Why Intelligent Design Had to Be the First to Face the Guillotine

David Klinghoffer
Image credit: Execution of Marie Antoinette, Unknown author / Public domain.

Proponents of intelligent design had explored cancel culture long before the phrase became well known. From Richard Sternberg to Stephen Meyer to Douglas Axe to Günter Bechly to (deep breath) Scott Minnich to Eric Hedin to David Coppedge and many others — before shouting down, policing, and punishing disfavored ideas were recognized by many as a rising curse in academic life, ID scientists knew it all too well. How did we get here?

The Paradox of Free Speech

Tony Woodlief has an insightful article in the Wall Street Journal. As he argues, the origins of speech bullying are laden with paradox. Citing the political scientist Willmoore Kendall, who taught William F. Buckley at Yale, he says that an excessive insistence on academic freedom in past decades contained the seeds of that freedom’s own destruction. Buckley alluded to this in the subtitle of his first book, God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom.” The paradox comes when, in an “absolutist” manner, you extend unlimited free speech to its own worst enemies. And you get there by imagining that all ideas are created equal.

From “Free Speech Absolutism Killed Free Speech”:

As the political theorist Willmoore Kendall predicted in the 1950s, a community that treats every idea as ultimately refutable will eventually conclude that no real truth exists. And once that happens, he reasoned, a formerly “open society” will “overnight become the most intolerant of possible societies and, above all, one in which the pursuit of truth . . . can only come to a halt.”

When no dogma can finally be put to rest, it becomes easier — almost obligatory — to do whatever we like. Ideas are evaluated, not based on their reasonableness or coherence, but by how much they tickle the ears of the in-crowd. Harder truths become offensive. The only intolerable citizen, in such a regime, is the one whose belief in truth compels him to attack beliefs he believes to be false even if his attacks disturb the equanimity of the establishment. His criticism becomes too hurtful — even a form of “violence.” For the safety of the community, he must be cast out….

Such is the way of things when no idea is beyond the pale; we abandon the firm ground necessary to call evil by its rightful name. This is why ideas inimical to free speech — Marxism and its identitarian offshoots — receive perennially fresh hearings under various guises in departments ranging from gender studies to philosophy to English. Adherents of these ideologies have no problem denying speech to their opponents. Our commitment to granting every idea space to bloom has ironically yielded speech codes, safe zones and purges of independent-minded scholars. Now this illiberalism is boiling over from campuses into the streets of Portland and other university-heavy cities.

Portland, Oregon, is the new Marxism triumphant. In wondering about the ongoing chaos in the streets of the city to our south, I had not thought of the fact that Portland is so “university-heavy.” But of course it is. My older daughter is applying to colleges this year and she gets a letter from the University of Portland what seems like every other day. As I joked to her, in seeking a scholarship, she should indicate in her application that she plans to double major in Rioting and Looting. For her senior project on Arson, entitled “Barbecue Night,” she will burn down the cafeteria.

“Bromides” to the Rescue?

With free speech in flames, as Woodlief reminds us, mere “bromides” about academic freedom can’t help much. Roger Kimball cited Kendall to a similar effect in an incisive piece in The New Criterion. From “Restoring the lost consensus”:

Kendall saw deeply into the dialectic of disagreement and free speech. It is understandable that conservatives should react to woke intolerance by celebrating free speech. The criminalization of policy differences that underwrites woke culture is an alarming development. But I think that Kendall was right when he contended that “by no means are all questions open questions.”

To explain this, Kendall points out that all societies are founded on a “consensus,” what he calls “a hard core of shared beliefs.” This is especially true, he notes, for the United States, whose founding principles are of recent vintage and are clearly and deliberately set forth. Freedom of thought and expression are important, Kendall acknowledges, but only “within limits set by the basic consensus.” Should that consensus be challenged by something “with genuine civil war potential,” the proper response is not debate but interdiction….

Kendall was writing at a moment when international Communism posed an existential threat to the United States. With that in mind, he argued, “Some questions involve matters so basic to the consensus” that, in declaring them open, a society would in effect “abolish itself [and] commit suicide.” Accordingly, Kendall outlined two views of free speech. The first, dedicated to the proposition that “no truth in particular is true,” holds that all questions are open and that no one position is to be preferred to another. The second view, his view, turns on two words: “We” and “truth,” as in the phrase “We hold these truths” from the Declaration of Independence. The identity of that “We” and the substance of those truths mark the limits of interrogation.

Thomas Jefferson and Intelligent Design

As philosopher of science Stephen Meyer has pointed out here, the Declaration goes on immediately to list among the “truths” that “we hold” the proposition of a design underlying nature: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” That is Jefferson’s very first truth. He was even more explicit about it in a letter to John Adams.

From, “Thomas Jefferson’s Embrace of Intelligent Design”:

On Independence Day, it’s appropriate to review the sources of our rights as citizens. There is one source that is more basic than any other, yet that receives less than the attention it deserves. I refer to the idea that there is an intelligent creator who can be known by reason from nature, a key tenet underlying the Declaration of Independence — as well as, curiously, the modern theory of intelligent design.

The birth of our republic was announced in the Declaration through the pen of Thomas Jefferson. He and the other Founders based their vision on a belief in an intrinsic human dignity, bestowed by virtue of our having been made according to the design and in the image of a purposeful creator.

To the Guillotine 

Marxism and Darwinism are joined at the hip, as Hannah Arendt recognized in The Origins of Totalitarianism. In Wesley J. Smith’s phrase, in the present cultural moment, we have witnessed “the French Revolution attacking the American Revolution.” Back in June I predicted to my family that the Revolution would, before long, turn on the great monuments like those to Thomas Jefferson. Of course it would. Yesterday, my prediction was borne out.

In retrospect, it’s not surprising that the first idea to find its head on the guillotine would be intelligent design. The idea of design, the heart of the American “consensus,” its hardest “hard core,” was the leading truth that Jefferson enunciated in the Declaration. Naturally, it had to be the first to go.